There wasn't supposed to be a part 2 of this story, but a few days after I had posted the
original article I decided to mail a few people, who I wasn't really sure would answer my
mail, but they did and actually had some pretty interesting stuff to add to the story, so
here I am again with more from Color Dreams.
One of the people I decided to write a mail, and tell about my Color Dreams story, was
Dan Lawton, one of the founders of Color Dreams and surely someone who had to know something
about Hellraiser, I believe it's time to kill all those rumors or verify them as true. Dan
Lawton had seen the Hellraiser movie and liked it, so he convinced his partners that Color
Dreams had to make a game based on the movie, and they bought the rights, spending from
$35.000 to $50.000 for a few years paying the movie studio.
Dan Lawton knew that the NES didn't have the power he wanted for his Hellraiser, so he
hired an engineer, Ron Risley, to create a new type of cartridge, the cartridge we all
know as the Super Cartridge. The idea for the cartridge was Lawton's, but Risley designed
the thing and wrote the supporting operating enviroment. Ron Risley was a pre-med at the time and as he
says I'm not a gamer, and lost interest once I had the technical
details worked out. The SuperCartridge was a Z-80 based system that intercepted the NES
processor's ROM and RAM accesses to manipulate video in real time. It allowed pixel-by-pixel
manipulation of the screen (NES was character-based) and also supported panning and zooming
in "hardware" (actually background software on the zed) as well as some sprite manipulation.
He was also able to confirm what others claim wasn't supposed to be, that Hellraiser was indeed supposed
to be published on the Super Cartridge. He continues As I said, I
lost interest in the project after the SuperCart was actually running. I'm a total geekazoid
and don't know squat about gaming, so figured I'd probably write dain-bramaged games. I
assumed that Color Dreams never did anything with the SC, since they never called with any
questions or problems with the design (though Dan could probably have handled all that
without my help, it was a pretty complex piece of hardware and the inevitable production
snags should have prompted a call).
In addition to Ron Risley's statement about Hellraiser indeed was being developed for the
Super Cartridge, Dan Lawton had following to say I liked the movie,
and convinced my parteners that it would be great for a game. But the nintendo didn't have
enough power to do it justice, so we came up with the idea of doubling the processor power
in the nintendo by adding another processor to the video space. The nintendo fetches it's
background and sprite images from a seperate memory from the main program memory. Our idea
was to share that memory with a second microprocessor which could execute and change those
video "tiles", without adding to the overhead on the main nintendo processor.
The nintendo had some kind of 6502 as I recall, but it's been a while. We put a Z80 with
DRAM into the video memory, and "dual ported" it so that the nintendo main processor would
be able to access it at the same time. Finally, we added some extra zip by putting the video
color palette registers in the same place, so that the Z80 could also change those on the
fly. The idea was that we could alternate colors between scans of the TV and increase the
effective number of colors on the screen.
But Color Dreams also found out that making a good product didn't really matter, you had
to get your products into the hands on consumers, which means it had to be on the shelves
in the stores, a big problem for all unlicensed companies. Nintendo made it very difficult
for anyone without a license to sell their games, there was a video game shortage at the
time and store owners were afraid that if they sold unlicensed games along with the,
original, licensed products, Nintendo would not ship all of their orders, and video games
were where the big bucks were.
So if no one would be able to buy the game, because stores refused to carry Color Dreams
games, there was really no point in finishing the Hellraiser game, and who knows if they
had finished it, it could've driven them out of business because of low sales.
We couldn't afford to spend about $2 million making a very good
game. Even a very bad game costs about $200,000 to produce.
The cartridge worked fine, although I was a bit disappointed by the palette register
switching effect. You can't alternate colors fast enough, the human eye can catch it.
But the extra processor power was incredible. The entire background could be moving
with no extra strain on the little nes microprocessor. It would have been
perfect for a maze oriented game like HellRaiser was planned to be.
By this time the guys behind Color Dreams had discovered what could earn them a good
ammount of money, let them stay in business, and even have enough stores to sell their
games, the christian market. As Dan Lawton puts it The christian
market was attractive because they didn't have any nintendo games at all, and didn't give
a fig about japanese distribution. In fact, if you told them that nintendo might be angry
about them selling our games, that made them want to sell them even more. Christian book
stores number about 9000 at any given time, and they all wanted to have our games.
That's even more stores than Toys R us.
About the possibility of a Hellraiser prototype existing, or atleast the game files,
Dan Lawton said The hardware was done, and the artwork was
20% done, there was no programming. It was a 45 degree down angle view, with a maze
of stone and walls and pits. So there you have it.
I asked him what made him and a few others start a company making unlicensed NES games,
and here what came out of that Because we could.
But wouldn't it have been a lot easier just to get the official license?
No. They charged us $11 for each game cartridge, with a minimum
purchase quantity and 6 months to deliver. We could produce them for $3, make just 100 if we
wanted to, and do it in 2 days. Nintendo had it all set up to drain all the money from
companies and give them nothing in return. It was a really bad deal.
In addition to this, and a follow up on Happy Camper supposedly being complete and ready
to ship, but didn't, Dan Lawton denied it, no all completed games were released.
It seems that the first part of the Color Dreams story was slightly wrong more than one place,
it turns out that Color Dreams and Wisdom Tree never really split into two companies,
here's what Dan Lawton had to say about it. We didn't break with
Wisdom tree, we just couldn't afford to make the games anymore. It's very expensive to make
them. One of the sales persons decided to continue selling the old titles and bought the
rights to the name. He wasn't really sure who owns the game rights today.
We just had a handshake type deal with her. It hasn't been a big
issue. I suspect she can sell the games to the christian market, but if we wanted to put
the games into something new we also could do that. And StarDot (Color Dreams)
actually did, the NES clone with the 15 Color Dreams games built-in is in fact "licensed
by Color Dreams", they supplied the games.
Here's a little story from Dan to end what he had to say about the whole thing,
We used to jump into Jim's convertable and head to Jim Meuer's
house in the hills, because he had a swimming pool. Like most programmers, we lived at
the coffee shop. We worked mostly nights, very late. Sometimes we'd work 80 hours per week
to finish something. At one point we hired 5 artists in mexico to draw games for us, but it
turned out that an artist couldn't really do anything useful unless they worked closely
with a programmer.
Ron Risley is today a successful doctor and Dan Lawton, well just like a lot of other
Color Dreams employees working at StarDot Technologies. Eddy Lin, another of the
founders, is selling custom frames for artwork, the company is unknown and I haven't been
able to find him either.
We're not done with Color Dreams at all, eventhough this was meant as just one article based
on some old interviews and a few new informations. Part 2 is done and part 3 is actually
in the works already, which is an interview with Dan Burke, one of the first persons to start
working at Color Dreams.